August 3, 2022

Everyone, it seems, has had enough of the boring old binary; non-binary people are having a moment. Celebrities are embracing “they/them” pronouns in droves; non-binary fashion lines are springing up like mushrooms; authors are riding the wave.

Two new books aim to give a flavour of what it’s like to be non-binary. None of the Above, by performer Travis Alabanza, offers “Reflections from Life Beyond the Binary”. And Voice of the Fish is a “lyrical essay” that combines scrapbook-like quotes with autobiographical fragments and free-associative prose, to convey something of author Lars Horn’s self-experience.

In one sense, the books are starkly different: Horn is a skilled writer, while Alabanza is mediocre at best. But they share a number of common features — most strikingly, a distinctive blurriness. It’s an intentional feature of Horn’s writing, and in Alabanza’s case probably more a function of bad style. But these differing types of incoherence — intentional and unintentional — reflect the wider political implications of “non-binary”, inviting questions about just how far this idea can really be carried.

Both are, crucially, books about being misfits. Alabanza describes (with characteristic clunkiness) a “lack of ability to fit into the boxes they are trying to place you in”. Mercifully more succinct, Horn echoes this: “I did not fit.” For the latter, who self-describes as “Nonbinary, transmasculine”, gender isn’t easily categorised but “unseen, unintelligible”: “I sense myself as movement. As lake or late-night radio. As a thing that feels weighted, finds it hard to rise, break surface.”

Both writers express the same longing to inhabit the world in a more fluid, protean and self-created way. Water, swimming, tides, sea-life and blurring physically at the edges are recurring themes in Voice of the Fish, and Alabanza employs a similar aquatic metaphor: “A body of water, potential to do so much, yet eventually bottled.”

Unsurprisingly, then, both authors are ambivalent about boundaries and solidity: in other words, about their physical selves. Alabanza self-describes as feeling “like an imposter [sic] in my body”, elsewhere referring to “my body and its desires” as though these are wholly independent entities. And Voice of the Fish thrums with the tension between Horn’s sensual descriptions of the world, and dissociated, disembodied account of selfhood.

Accounts of swimming in a too-small wetsuit and nearly drowning, of an eerie encounter with a folk-healer, of walking across sharp barnacles after a freezing sea-swim, all have a bright, tactile immediacy. And yet Voice of the Fish is also littered with self-objectification, and a sense of bodies as things: references to “this body”, “one’s body”, “the body”, “bodies so often marginalised or written over”. For Horn, embodiment appears to be something abstract, experienced at a distance:

“I am grateful for my body, for how it moves me through the world, but I do experience it as distance, as transient shell that I will walk out of in the same way I walked in. I identify with the gazes put upon it. Their exteriority. To look at myself more than as myself. To experience oneself from within, but, also, crucially, from without.”

For Alabanza, this sense of disembodiment is everyone else’s fault, for inflicting the arbitrary “gender binary” upon the world. Horn’s account of growing up offers richer and stranger possibilities, recounting childhood with a heavy-drinking, indebted mother, a fine artist who called Horn’s school projects ‘bits of twonky shite’ and used her child, from an early age, as the model for her work:

“I have modelled in baths, glass cases, on beds, beaches, in forests. My body covered in dead fish, offal, dried flowers, ashes. My body cast, photographed, filmed, watched by gallery audience. My mother’s instructions always: Look dead, Lars, look more dead.”

Never mind the stereotypical “always played with opposite-sex toys” narrative (though this is also, briefly, present in both). After such a childhood, it would be strange for Horn to have reached adulthood with anything other than a sense of being an object.

Both accounts also betray, albeit perhaps less intentionally, a father-shaped hole. Alabanza fondly recalls “Hangwolf”, a childhood-era German lodger who served as temporary father-figure, then later reflects on “the man who drove me to football because my own was too busy somewhere else”, and “how so many of us grow up with fathers playing hide and seek, so the wider community becomes our dads”. Being called “son”, for Alabanza, could thus feel “like both a punch and a hug”.

Similarly, in Horn’s accounts of international travel, older men frequently appear as friends and protectors. Jean-Marie, a retired French railway worker, takes Horn to visit a healer who uses what appears to be folk magic to cure a chronic skin ailment. Ivano, a Georgian mechanic and driver, offers a son in marriage. Feodor, Horn’s host in Tbilisi, makes tea and shows photographs and quiet kindness. The sense the author describes, of tacit recognition and acceptance, evokes fatherliness in its warmest and least authoritarian form:

“Somehow, like Feodor, Ivano saw me, the pace and gesture of me. Even when what he was understanding came without cultural framework, he grasped it—understanding as physicality, as a texture between bodies, unspoken yet sensed.”

But the most striking commonality between the books is arguably a function of their central theme: “non-binary” identity. For inasmuch as “gender” serves as part of a broad pre-existing matrix of social meanings that shape our public selves, both authors seem to experience this shaping as a kind of violence.

Alabanza declares that “the initial act of deciding I am not man or woman was to gain autonomy for myself”. But the desire for total control over one’s own self-definition raises the question of  whether it’s even possible to have social meaning – after all, if no one else contributes, such meanings are no longer “social” as such. More troubling still, if definition is felt as violence in the context of gender, does the idea of definition-as-violence apply to language too? And what does this mean for our ability to communicate?

If these two books are anything to go by, the answer is: it becomes extremely difficult to say anything clearly. This works well enough in Voice of the Fish, provided you don’t mind a bit of arty meandering. Horn is a compelling writer, and the choice of arty meandering as a literary form is in any case appropriate for the material. Voice of the Fish drifts back and forth between the author’s childhood, youthful travels and present moment, interspersed with excerpts from a range of literary sources. The effect is of a mosaic, deliberately loose, where associations and impressions accumulate in drifts while avoiding precisely those hard-edged ‘this’ or ‘that’ definitions that both Horn and Alabanza seem to experience as painful in the context of ‘gender’.

“I have never enjoyed clean history, neat lines and traceable cause and effect,” declares Horn. “I’ve always enjoyed a more haphazard, more crustacean zigzag through the past.” The book’s meandering form encapsulates this approach, sidling crabwise at the strangeness of Horn’s worldview. The final passages describe flooded Florida streets: a blurring of marine and human terrains, the dissolution of hard edges. And perhaps such blurriness is the only way such strangeness could be depicted with any authenticity.

By contrast, I doubt the incoherence in None of the Above is deliberate: it’s more that in attempting to make a rigorous argument against clear-cut identities, Alabanza succeeds mainly in going round in circles on the topic of Alabanza. In fairness, where this is all that’s attempted – that is, where the book sticks to personal anecdote — the prose is relatively clear. Anecdotes about street harassment, or being rebuked by the local cornershop-owner for wearing lipstick, have an immediacy that draws the reader on.

Unfortunately, though, None of the Above doesn’t stop there, but attempts to theorise each personal anecdote to make wider points about “life beyond the binary”: for example, whether or not there’s such a thing as “proper” trans, or how such identities interact with race and class. And once away from personal stories, the prose is relentlessly awkward.

Examples are legion, but this serves to illustrate: “My existence supersedes any agreed social contract of how people are supposed to act.” It’s some distance from the “incisive” and “extraordinary” prose promised by Canongate’s editorial director when she acquired None of the Above. Nor can this be excused by Alabanza’s own (frequently referenced) position in the intersectional victimhood stack. There are plenty of excellent prose stylists out there who are queer, trans, black, all of the above, or otherwise not white or cisheteropatriarchal. It’s simply that Alabanza isn’t a very good writer.

Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about None of the Above is that, despite attaining neither argumentative rigour nor enjoyably arty meandering, it occasionally hits on something that rings true. “I am trans because of you,” Alabanza declares, “not because of me.” That is, outliers such as Alabanza and Horn have been shoved to the margins by social categories that refuse to make room for them.

And both clearly experience this as an unhappy, tiring state of affairs. Indeed, the one theme in None of the Above that feels sincere, rather than lifted from third-hand theory, is how much longer Alabanza can bear to keep resisting these uncomfortable categories. Having attained fame and attention via a jarringly ambiguous “non-binary” presentation, Alabanza spends the book going back and forth over whether to ditch this in favour of passing more straightforwardly as a “she”. It is, after all, “exhausting to sit outside of any box”.

One may sympathise with this dilemma while wondering whether a measure of pragmatism might not be in everyone’s interests. After all, it’s hard to see how we can accommodate those who experience every form of social meaning as violent impingement, short of abolishing all social meaning. And a culture stripped of both social meanings and the ability to think is no culture at all. Voice of the Fish enacts the least worst version of this perspective: radical subjectivism as an art form. By contrast, None of the Above is probably a more accurate reflection of what a politics of radical ambiguity means in practice, among those less literate than Horn: woolly thinking and self-absorption.

In terms of quality, then, this duo of non-binary books is as binary as it gets. If a highly unusual personal account of sexuality, illness, body-dissociation, marine life and the weird byways of classical literature sounds like your thing, even the most gender-critical reader may enjoy Voice of the Fish. But None of the Above deserves neither your time nor money.